“It’s hard to say what’s made me successful. If I knew, I’d probably give it to everybody, but I’ll tell you this. I may be old, but I’m gonna die young. I think it’s really attitude. That doesn’t mean you have to speak the language of the younger generation, but you gotta really know how to communicate with them. Because if you don’t, they’re gonna be a step ahead of you everywhere you go. Every now and again you have to step up in front of them and block their way just slightly to make ’em think for a second.”
The AllMusic Guide calls Steve Cropper “probably the best-known soul guitarist in the world.” In 1996 England’s Mojo Magazine proclaimed him number two guitarist of all-time. Jimi Hendrix was number one. Rolling Stone magazine readers voted him among the Top 100 Guitar Players of all-time in 2003.
Nearly 60 years into a career he started as a hit making teenager, guitarist Steve Cropper is best known for doing for The Blues Brothers and Memphis soul what James Burton did for Elvis Presley and rock and roll in general. Cropper codified a sound that music fans the world over hear in their minds when they think of Memphis soul.
While Motown smoother out black rhythm ‘n blues, turning out chocolate milk for the masses and putting Detroit on the map as an urban center for original sweet soul music, the Stax-Volt sound retained the edge of America’s black musical roots. Steve Cropper appears on every record Stax put out from 1961 to 1970, and he wrote or co-wrote most of them. If Sun Records’ Elvis put Memphis on the pop music map in the ’50s, it was Stax-Volt that reinstated Memphis’ stature as the home of music that made America shake to its core.
His guitar was and is the special sauce slathered on a full rack of ribs that tweaked the Memphis sound. His strings are as funky as Muddy Waters’ Delta blues and as rich as America’s jazz heritage. And it was Cropper who was the center piece that re-activated American music fans’ slightly dangerous sweet spot following the rise and subsequent whitewash of rock and roll. If Motown was choreographed dancing, pastel jump suits, and smooth vocal harmonies, Stax-Volt was dark glasses, strident screams of sensual rapture and the essence of forbidden fruit that white mothers feared would infect their teenagers. Ironically, at the center point of this phenomenon was Cropper, a six-foot-six white teenager.
As Stax-Volt’s resident guitarist, songwriter, producer and performer, Steve Cropper was ubiquitous in formulating the sounds of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Albert King. He was Booker T.’s partner with the band The M.G.s in creating “Green Onions,” the funkiest, most instantly recognizable soul instrumental of all time. It went number one on the R&B charts and number three on the pop charts in 1962. Cropper at the time didn’t realize that it would become as iconic as it has, but he says today that he knew it was a hit.
Booker T. stumbled on “Green Onions” “strange” chord structure in the 11th grade. “I could play my little theory chords with Steve Cropper, (drummer) Al Jackson and (bass player) Lewie Steinberg. If I had any expertise with the chords, they had the expertise with the rhythm, and they just practiced it in the clubs. I didn’t have to think about that or worry about it. All I had to do was play my little chords, and it came together.”
Cropper shrugs at Booker T.’s giving him that much credit for the song. “I know the intro has become pretty famous. I’m just playing a four major to a one major, four-one, four-one on my intro. Booker’s in a minor and I’m in a major, and it works because the bass line supports all of it.”
Cropper was the glue that held Booker T. and The M.G.s together. The genesis of that band and the Stax label was a group called The Mar-Keys whose 1961 instrumental hit “Last Night” went top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts on Satellite Records which later changed its name to Stax. Cropper was 19 at the time. He would go on to produce records for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Eddie Floyd in a career that includes accompanying Rod Stewart, Art Garfunkel, Stephen Bishop, Neil Sedaka, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rankin, Levon Helm, Johnny Taylor, and Elvis. While at Stax Cropper co-wrote “Greens Onions” and “Hip Hug-Her” for Booker T. and The M.G.s, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and “635-5789″ plus “Dock of The Bay” and “Fa-Fa-Fa” for Otis Redding.
Cropper recalls the first time he met Otis. “Our drummer Al Jackson kept telling him, “Our A&R director holds auditions on Saturday, and he probably doesn’t have time to listen to you.’ He just kept bugging us and bugging us, and Al came to me and he said, ‘Can you take five seconds out of your time and get this guy off my back, cause he’s just bugging me to death about listening to him sing.’ I said, ‘Ok, well, tell him to come down to the piano.’ So, I went down to the piano. I said, ‘Ok, play something,’ and (Otis) said, ‘I don’t play piano. I play a little git-tar, but I don’t play piano.’ He said, ‘Can you play some of those church chords?’
“The first time I heard Otis sing “These Arms Are Mine,” my hair stood up. I grabbed Jim’s (Jim Stewart, Stax founder) shirt and said, ‘Jim, stop whatever you’re doing. You gotta come and hear this guy sing,’ and Jim looked at me and said, ‘What? I don’t have time to go hear someone sing.’ Then, he (tried) to put the band together to record the song running out on the sidewalk and said, ‘Duck (Dunn, bass player), get your bass back out here,’ and I was putting the bass in my trunk getting ready to go home. It was the greatest voice I’d ever heard.
“On the last session, we had Otis for two weeks because he hadn’t booked the tour yet. (He) was getting ready to, and he took off after Monterey (Pop Festival). He had a throat operation I guess to have the polyps taken off, and he sang so good as attested by the record that came out, The Dock of The Bay record. He sounds so good on that record, it’s amazing. So, Ronny Capone who was the engineer said, ‘Do you realize how well Otis is singing?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So, we started at night, and after we’d go to lunch or dinner and got back to the studio and pulled out old tracks and had them overdub on ’em. All the four tracks we had in the can. So, fortunately, he left us with about 14 really good vocal performances and songs in the can rather than scrounging around trying to find old tracks or something. We had new songs, new tracks, new vocals. It was amazing that we had all that stuff.”
Otis died before “Dock of The Bay” was released in 1967. Cropper still hasn’t gotten over his passing. “That’s devastating. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about. It was very emotional, and it still is. I don’t know what it would be like to lose a sibling, to lose a son or a daughter, but I know what it is to lose a best friend, and it is definitely not easy. It’s tough. It never goes away.”
Cropper is one of a select group of songwriter/musicians who can write songs that each are unique enough that, when taken collectively, can qualify as a whole genre of music. You can easily imagine his repertoire being the work of a much larger cadre of musicians. And yet he is largely responsible for creating – or co-creating – the entire Memphis soul lexicon. I asked him how he feels when people say he invented soul guitar?
“It sounds a little farfetched, but I’ll own up to it, I guess. I copied from a guy named Lowman Pauling with the 5 Royales. He was the songwriter leader of the group and played guitar, and I tried to style myself a little bit after him in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”
Cropper did an album called A Salute to the 5 Royales in 2011. Pauling was Cropper’s biggest technical influence. “I would say my first influence was Bo Diddley, and then we all listen to Chuck Berry and all that stuff, (but) Lowman Pauling was the guy I got to see live and I said, ‘I want to play like that guy.’
Cropper agrees with both Booker T. and another Stax artist, the late Isaac Hayes, who felt there was magic mojo in those studio recordings. “Right. A lot of that stuff was written and conceived on stage playing for small audiences, and then we got to come in the studio and put it down and heard it back which was very exciting for us. There was a lot of enthusiasm. It never got boring at Stax. It was always like a new day, a new song. There was a time I think we had about 17 hours on the Stax roster, so we were cutting at least two songs a week at least.”
In 1978, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, the crowning stars of the perennially popular TV show “Saturday Night Live,” created an instantly popular duo called the Blues Brothers that started as a satire on blues in general. In their alter egos as Jake and Elwood Blues, they wore John Lee Hooker sun glasses with the kind of black suits and hats musicians wore on jazz album covers of the ’50s. Dan Akroyd told Crawdaddy magazine, “The glasses are crucial, man. The band has got to have the right look or the whole thing won’t work. It’s essential that we get Ray-Bans model number 5022-G15.”
John Belushi had played drums since he was eight. To him, the Blues Brothers’ music was more than shtick. He told Crawdaddy magazine in 1978: “There was a lot of rainy nights with nothing to do, and this guy I met there (in Eugene, Oregon), Curtis Selgado, began playing me all this music. It was fucking unbelievable. I was starving for it, and Curtis kept asking if I was really interested. Interested? I couldn’t stop playing the stuff! Magic Sam, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells. I walked around playing that shit all the time. I bought hundreds of records and singles. And then I knew Danny had played the harp in Canada, and I always could sing, so we created the Blues Brothers.”
Steve Cropper was the guitarist in the Blues Brothers Band. The press at the time didn’t quite know how to take “the brothers.” And the idea that they were backed by Steve Cropper and a crack band had them scratching their heads. Renowned New York Times music critic John Rockwell dubbed the package “an affectionate, lightweight good time.”
By 1980 they’d released a number one LP Briefcase Full of Blues, and Rockwell had attended one of their concerts at The Palladium. “It is felt that as comedians they aren’t quite funny enough and as live performers they simply don’t live up to their band let alone their soul inspirations,” said Rockwell adding, “First, the Blues Brothers are by no means that bad. Mr. Belushi has nothing to be deeply ashamed about compared to a lot of white people who try to sing black popular music. And Mr. Akroyd can play functional harmonica and snap out the patter songs (“Riot in Cellblock No. 9″) handily enough. And that band is first-rate.”
Not only were Akroyd and Belushi white comedians doing the blues, but that “first-rate” band was bi-racial. Cropper is featured in a film currently showing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame commenting on how the racial atmosphere in Memphis changed following the death of Martin Luther King in 1968. In our interview he speaks about how the band members remained color blind after that tragedy.
“I don’t think (Marin Luther King’s death) changed very much attitude in the studio itself. What changed was the attitude outside, and that was pretty devastating because I think most of the guys that worked there weren’t very comfortable outside the studio. The only difference was when you walked into Stax everything changed. You just left all your problems and all that stuff outside. You had a great day in the studio, and when you walked back out you might have to relive some of it again, but everybody was in the studio for the same reason, to make a hit record, and there was no color whatsoever.
“Of course, nowadays everyone wants to make something out of it being integrated when everything outside was segregated, and it was just the way of life we all agreed to, but there was no color inside the walls of Stax. It did not exist. Everybody was comfortable with everybody. So, that was the way it was.”
Besides Cropper on guitar, the band included Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Murphy Dunne on keyboards, drummer Willie “Too Big” Hall, Tom “Bones” Malone on trombone and tenor sax, James Cotton’s guitarist Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin on trumpet. The Blues Brothers film cemented their image, creating the broadest market for blues in general since the British Invasion. Appearing in the first film were James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, Aretha Franklin, Henry Gibson, John Lee Hooker backed by Big Walter Horton, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Guitar Junior (Luther Johnson) and Fuzz Jones. In the production notes for the film Belushi called it “a tribute to black American music.”
“We took a lot of the flak,” says Cropper about the critical reaction to The Blues Brothers, “and then we had to learn as we went that Belushi used to front a band. He was a drummer and a singer, and he was very good at it, and Akroyd actually did play harmonica. I mean he didn’t have somebody else play for him, and fake it in the movie or nothing. He did it, and I think that was told on stage, too, because they had to go out and perform that stuff. And a lot of press and so forth did not want to accept the fact that when Belushi or Akroyd could do anything other than just act and be on TV and movies.
“I don’t think they accepted it. They did a little more than just clown around. They were very serious about what they did, and Belushi also had one of the biggest blues collections of records that I had ever seen. I mean he had walls and walls. He had one whole room full of that stuff. Every wall had a record on it.”
Cropper says neither he nor Duck Dunn knew The Blues Brothers’ inspiration Curtis Selgado at the time, but he, Cropper, ended up playing on one of Selgado’s records. “I (never) stayed in touch. I know him and played on one of his records 30-odd years ago I think in L.A. when I lived out there. A great artist.”
Cropper has been touring with a current version of the Blues Brothers Band for 15 years and recently released The Last Shade of Blue Before Black on Severn Records. While calling itself The Original Blues Brothers Band, the only original member is Cropper himself. Sax player Lou Marini was in the original touring band. John Belushi died in 1982, and Dan Akroyd does not appear on this record. That said, Matt Murphy and Paul “The Shiv” Shaffer make appearances and special guests include Dr. John and Joe Louis Walker. The recordings were all made live in the studio and vocal chores vary from cut to cut.
“You know, the funny thing about the album. We’d been threatening to do it for so long knowing that we needed one, and finally we said, “We’ve been together now a little over 15 years with the present members of the band.” I just thought it was necessary.
“These guys are seasoned musicians. They’re in the business, so it was easy for everybody to follow, and most of the guys in the band play all the time on the stage when they’re home and not on the road with us. We’ve been out there on the road since February of this year. So, I’m kinda glad to be home for a while.
History has repeated itself so many times in my career as a music journalist. Passionate music that reveals the inner soul captures a niche in the marketplace and then a style comes along to make that “real” music palatable to the masses. Motown created some great music, but it was polished for a mass audience, but Stax became the yin to Motown’s yang taking the listener back to the bone. I’ ve always loved Steve Cropper because he led that charge. Still, he tips his hat to Berry Gordy’ s Motown.
“Technically, Berry Gordy and them were going after the pop charts. Stax was going after the R&B charts. Yeah, we got lucky every now and then getting on the pop charts. A lot of Berry’s music because if the nature got on the R&B charts, but he was going after the pop charts.
“There was a part that Stax wanted to go after the pop charts, but they failed miserably in a lotta places. However, when people like Aretha Franklin covered a song, it went up the pop charts. She had a number one record with “Seesaw” (on Atlantic Records in 1968), a song I got to co-write with Don Covay and recorded the first version with him at Stax, but there weren’t many (number ones).
“I guess “Green Onions” hit the pop charts, and “Last Night” with the Mar-Keys, our high school band, also hit the pop charts. and we were just lucky because it didn’t have any lyrics on it. It didn’t get judged as much. That’s when instrumentals were very, very popular, and a guy I kinda grew up listening to was Bill Justice who did “Raunchy.” That was all instrumental stuff, so I was still in high school with the flip side of his third release with a silly little song I wrote that he retitled “Flea Circus.” I was 16 and I got my first royalty check from Sam Phillip’ International Records back in the late ’50s, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is what to do with the rest of my life’
More than 60 years later Cropper’s still in the game. “I think about survival every day whether I’m inside the box or outside the box. I don’t know. I’m just going through life. I put one foot in front of the other, and I always look down in case I might step off a cliff or step into something, and I tell everybody, ‘Well, I grew up on a farm, and when you walk into the barnyard, you look down. You don’t look up'”
Check out Steve’s website at: playitsteve.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.